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Riding Solo from Monterey to Santa Barbara

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference
          — Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

helmet and mapI was in a lot of pain about the addiction-relapse cycle of a loved one and really struggling to understand the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer, the closing prayer of many 12-step meetings around the world, which is offered above in its best-known form.

I already had a practice of clearing my mind for reflection by writing morning pages, riding my bike to and from work, and occasional moments of mindfulness. I even wrote about that on Dr. Pop –– Writing, Riding, and Mindfulness.

But this time the need for escape and release combined with what passes for a vague kind of bucket list (more like “I always wanted to do that”) which, with age, comes up with more urgency.

And that is what led me to take a week-long solo bike ride from Monterey to Santa Barbara along the California Coast.

Of course it is really different, but it’s the closest thing I have probably ever experienced to Andrea’s current farming adventure.

I love Highway 1.  Any opportunity I can take to drive up to the elephant seals a few miles north of Hearst Castle, take the winding spectacular road to Big Sur and stop for a drink at Nepenthe, and simply lose myself in trees, mountains, and ocean –– preferably solo –– I’m there.  I always imagined doing it on a bicycle, although even my fantasies realized that I might need a better bike and better stamina than my regular excursions from Mid-City L.A. to Culver City.

So first I thought of the AIDS ride.  From S.F. to L.A.  80 miles a day.  Accompanied my thousands of riders as well as support teams. Camping along the way.  I investigated and had some conversations and reservations.  Hey, I’m over 60. I’m not an athlete. My camping skills, while compared to Gary, exist, but in the world of REI and people who grew up with vacations that involved tents and such, are negligible.

So I decided to do it myself. Well, kind of myself.  I contracted with  Central Coast Outdoors, a lovely Los Osos-based tour company that plans and leads biking, kayaking, and hiking tours of California’s Central Coast.

After it became clear that company was something I didn’t want, they coached me through designing a self-led tour. On Day One, they picked me up at the Monterrey airport; drove me to a staging area where they provided me with a bike, maps, and turn-by-turn directions; exchanged by luggage for some panniers; and helped me make the necessary adjustments so that the bike would suit my ride.

And then on Day Eight, they met me at the Santa Barbara train station where I returned the bike, swapped panniers for luggage, and met up with Gary to go out to lunch and go home.

My route had a lot of that Forrest Gump spirit (“run, Forrest, run”) without any of the practical hardships. I traveled light and slept in a bed every night.  It was right after Labor Day, the roads weren’t crowded, and the weather ­­–– which, of course, is the luck of the draw –– was perfect.

It was more like Forrest Gump with a credit card.

I hardly took any photos. I wasn’t travel-blogging. It was all about the experience of being where I was in the moment, moving my body, feeling the coastal air against my skin, semi-dreading the word “climb” when it came up in my directions, and going to bed every night with a different kind of tired.

So here’s the route, with a few asides. I’ll follow with a little reflection on the benefits.

Day One –– Monterey to Big Sur –– 45 miles
From a parking lot near Highway 1, I took off for the 17 Mile Drive towards Carmel equipped with bike, gear, and trip information supplied by Central Coast Outdoors. I remember cresting the first big along the Big Sur Coastline with a great and surprised feeling of “I can do this!”  I finished Day One at the Big Sur Lodge.

view from New Camaldoli

Day Two –– Big Sur –– 25 miles
The day started off with a big hill and continued with a lot of stunning scenery along the Big Sur coastline. All of the recommended places to spend the night were booked, but I found that I could stay at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a working monastery located 2 miles straight up a hill above Big Sur. And I mean straight up –– it was the only time I walked my bike, and that was nice as well –– I saw foxes and other wildlife along the way. Visitors can stay there in simple private rooms with a view of the ocean in silent retreat. (I know –– Gilda, silent? But I was alone, and contemplation was part of the journey) Meals are provided for the taking from a shared kitchen. It was perfect.

elephant seals

Day Three –– Lucia to Cambria –– 45 miles
This might have been the most physically challenging day of the tour. In the morning I was either climbing or descending hills on Highway One which were often carved right out of the cliffs that rise over a thousand feet above the ocean. Just south of Ragged Point the hills level out to the flat ranchlands to Piedras Blancas, where you can always see elephant seals, and depending on the time of year, lots of baby seals. It was amazing to roll up to my giant seal friends on a bike. Note: That is truly anthropomorphic –– if it’s one thing that elephant seals are not, it’s friendly. There are lots of places to stay in Cambria. It’s a tourist spot. I stayed at the Cambria Pines Lodge.

pelican on cayucos pier

Day Four –– Cambria to San Luis Obispo –– 40 miles
This route sticks close to the coast and winds through Cayucos, Morro Bay, and the Morro Bay National Estuary. I like the Cayucos pier and remember spending hours there watching pelicans dive bomb for fish and Morro Bay is my favorite place to kayak, calm and protected as it is, with plenty of opportunities to see so many different kinds of birds on a sandspit across the dock, and more likely than not, sea otters along the way. I stayed in San Luis Obispo at a motel called the San Luis Creek Inn. There was a music festival going on downtown. It was relaxed and fun.

downtown guadalupe

Day Five –– San Luis Obispo to Santa Maria –– 40 miles
This part of the trip was different — beautiful in a very different way.  I started out on the coast to the classic beach town of Pismo Beach but then veered inland through farm and farmworker country, through Guadalupe, which like so much of central California is poor, Latino, and increasingly under-resourced. Last year a grand jury, citing a decreasing tax base, mounting debts, and municipal mismanagement despite good intentions, recommended that the city of 7,000 simply dissolve (they did not). It was one of the most interesting places to ride through, to get a sense of the California that I rarely see in L.A.  I talked to people in Guadalupe. I ate great Mexican food. I ended the day in Santa Maria where I stayed at downtown at the Santa Maria Inn.

Day Six –– Santa Maria to Solvang –– 40 miles
This ride passed through Orcutt, sand dunes, and the vineyards of the Santa Ynez winery region. By now I liked the isolation and hills of Foxen Canyon Road which eventually took me to my destination of Solvang, the one place on my itinerary that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to. What I remembered about Solvang was that it was a Danish-themed tourist town, replete with what I remembered as Danish-themed kitsch. I was wrong. A stop the Hans Christian Anderson Museum (operated by the Ugly Duckling Foundation, no less) informed me that Anderson, aside from being the author of over 160 fairy tales was an avid and active promoter of Danish Folk Schools.

Well, that piqued my interest. My former work-home, SAJE, was inspired, in part by the Highlander Center, a serious part of movement history. Highlander’s original name in the 1930’s was the Highlander Folk School, because its founder, Myles Horton, was inspired (and visited) the Danish Folk School Movement which consists of residential centers for non-formal adult education. They were for working-class people –– “schools for life.”  I asked some questions and was referred me to the nearby Elverhøj Museum (pronounced “Elverhoy” and means “elves on the hill”), located about four blocks away from the main drag, where the woman who was closing up let me spend some time in the section of the Museum that houses a diorama of the folk school, which opened in 1911, moved to a much larger facility in 1914, and then operated until the 1950s under the name of changed its name Attertag College.

Here’s a video about Attertag.

Who knew?

I left wondering if Myles Horton might have saved the trip to Denmark and come to California instead.

El Capitan Canyon glamping

my “glampsite”

Day Seven –– Solvang to El Capitan Canyon –– 25 miles
This ride passed through the really lovely and isolated country behind Solvang to Highway 101 and a climb over the Gaviota Pass back to the coast. Surprisingly, riding on this particular part of the 101 was way more pleasant than you might imagine, considering that you are basically riding on the freeway. It was not too crowded or scary, offered nice ocean views, and I would do it again. That night’s stay was the quintessential Forrest-Gump-with-a-credit-card affair. I stayed in a “glamping” (glamourous camping?) tent, complete with bed and a working lamp at the El Capitain Canyon resort.

Day Eight –– El Capitan Canyon to Santa Barbara –– 25 miles
After a short stretch back on 101 to Goleta, this route took the traditional Coast Bike Route through Hope Ranch to Santa Barbara’s waterfront to my final destination at the Santa Barbara Amtrak station, and then, back in a car with Gary, home.

If any of you want to try this yourself, I highly recommend it. Just email me with any questions that you have and I’ll share the turn-by-turns and places to stay that I considered, but were booked. Suggestion: if you are as inexperienced with this kind of thing as I was, the advice and support of Central Coast Outdoors was really worth the price.

My solo ride produced benefits, aside from those that you might expect to be derived from eight days of sea, sun, and physical activity.

On a typical day, my mind is on the noisy side, busily constructing, examining, and pushing out ideas.

My days devoted to riding, seeing, and much more silence than usual gradually gave way to a simple capacity to receive. Thoughts came and went. Without attachment or need for practical purpose, I could release them back to wherever they came from.

And with that came a quiet sort of peace, acceptance, and renewal.

Footnote: Please don’t be dissuaded by the fact that I obviously spent money on this particular adventure. There are plenty of 25-45 mile trip bike rides that can start and end at home. The challenge is to do it. While might be more challenging to turn off your phone and mind when you are “away,” but it is certainly doable and worthwhile. Now that I mention it, maybe I’ll try that this year…



One Comment

  • María Elena Gaitán says:

    Dear Gilda,
    I hope you are well.

    After all these years, I have something I would like to share with you and am hoping you receive and can respond to this message, to let me know if I may contact you further.

    Wishing you all good things.

    María Elena

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